The Problem with Fragrances

Have you ever stopped to think about the chemical interaction of perfumes and fragrances with our body? Or perhaps you or someone you know is extremely sensitive to an air freshener or scented lotions – ever wonder why? In this post we will discover what a fragrance is, why it’s an issue in personal care products, and how your body interacts with them.

What is a fragrance?

Have you ever gotten into someone’s car and been so overwhelmed with the air freshener that is gave you a headache?

The term “fragrance” (aka “parfum”) can be used for any number of aromatic chemical concoctions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 5,000 different fragrance chemicals —  in countless combinations — are used in products today.

Fragrance is added to products to make them smell better (duh). Sometimes it’s to add a sense of luxury or personality. Sometimes they’re used to create a more “natural” aroma. And sometimes they’re used to cover up an offending odor. Scent sells and manufacturers know it, so novel fragrances are not only used in cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaners, they’re also increasingly found in hard goods like diapers, garbage bags, candles, tissues, toys, and more (Honest).

Consider this short list of products that typically contain fragrances:

  • air fresheners
  • household cleaners
  • laundry softeners
  • dryer sheets
  • body lotions
  • hair products
  • makeup
  • perfumes
  • women’s care products

While every other specific ingredient used in personal care products must, by law, be listed on the label, fragrance is considered a trade secret (1). So, the dozens or perhaps even hundreds of chemicals used to create them are kept confidential from inquiring minds (Honest). 

Are fragrances regulated?

Current laws do not provide the FDA with the authority to require disclosure or public safety of fragrance ingredients. In the U.S., companies are required to list ingredients on the label; however, this regulation excludes the individual constituents of fragrance in order to preserve fragrance trade secrets. This sustains a loophole that leads to disclosure gaps (Safe Cosmetics).

Do fragrances pose health risks?

Fragrance ingredients may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials. Companies that manufacture perfume or cologne purchase fragrance mixtures from fragrance houses (companies that specialize in developing fragrances) to develop their own proprietary blends. In addition to “scent” chemicals that create the fragrance, perfumes and colognes also contain solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes.

Even more, there are potential serious health issues associated with these classified compounds. Here is what the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has found on in the research:

  • According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis and its prevalence is on the rise.
  • Studies have found many, potentially harmful chemicals hiding in fragrances, including:
    • Synthetic musks that build up in our bodies and may enhance the impacts of other toxic chemicals (2,3). Some of these musks have shown hormone disruption potential (4-8). Synthetic musks are also persistent in the environment and contaminate waterways and wildlife (9).
    • Phthalates linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development, reproduction, and child health (10-13).
    • Volatile organic compounds that are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws (14).
    • Neurotoxicants, which are chemicals that are toxic to the brain (15,16).
    • Acetaldehyde adversely affects kidneys and the reproductive, nervous and respiratory systems (17). This chemical is listed as known or suspected to cause cancer in California’s Proposition 65 (18). Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program classify acetaldehyde as potentially carcinogenic to humans (19, 20).
    • Benzophenone is linked to endocrine disruption and organ system toxicity (21), and experimental studies suggest benzophenone may lead to several kinds of tumors (22). Derivatives of benzophenone, such as benzophenone-1 (BP-1) and oxybenzone (BP-3), are potential endocrine disruptor (23). Benzophenone is listed as a possible human carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65(24).

How to avoid fragrances.

Simply put, read the ingredients label on products and if “fragrance” or “parfum” is listed, put that product back on the shelf.

Be aware of the claims “unscented” and “fragrance-free” as they are not what they seem. According to Dr. Joseph Schwarcz, chemist, author, professor, and director of McGill’s Office for Science & Society:

Unscented products are formulated to have no smell but can contain ingredients that have a smell but the smell has been neutralized by other components. A fragrance-free product cannot contain any ingredients that have been added to impart a smell but may contain ingredients that have a scent but are not added because of their scent. For example if a cream is made with an oil that has a smell, it could still be labeled as fragrance-free because the purpose of the oil is to act as an emollient, not as a scent. But it could not be labeled unscented. However, if a product is formulated with lavender, for example, but some chemical is added to mask the smell, the product can be labeled as “unscented.”

Again, read the actual ingredients label! If there’s no ingredients list, contact the manufacturer.

If you’d rather not take a chance with a product, you can invest in companies that make it their mission to provide you with safer and cleaner products. My two favorite companies include:

Honest: in their position stand, they claim to “never use artificial fragrances or hide ingredients from you behind the term “fragrance” or “parfum.” Instead, they do use essential oils in many of their products to give them a pleasant, natural scent. You’ll always be able to identify exactly what they use, so, if you have allergies or sensitivities, you can easily avoid any triggers.” You can check out their Honestly Free Guarantee of ingredients they will never use. 

Beautycounter: they’re committed to a health and safety standard that goes well beyond what is required by U.S. law. “Through their Never List™ and 5-step ingredient selection process, they’ve prohibited the use of more than 1,500 questionable or harmful ingredients from use in Beautycounter formulas, so you can feel confident in the safety of their products and trust that they’re as effective and indulgent as any other luxe shampoo, lipstick, or oil in the market.” They are my all time favorite and count on them for all my cosmetics and body care needs!


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from
  2. Washam, C. (2005). A Whiff of Danger: Synthetic Musks May Encourage Toxic Bioaccumulation. Environ Health Perspect Environmental Health Perspectives113(1).
  3. Schmeiser, H. H., Gminski, R., & Mersch-Sundermann, V. (2001). Evaluation of health risks caused by musk ketone.International Journal Of Hygiene and Environmental Health203(4), 293–299.
  4. Seinen W, Lemmen JG, Pieters RH, Verbruggen EM, Van der Burg B. (1999). AHTN and HHCB show weak estrogenic but no uterotrophic activity. Toxicol. Lett. 111, 161–168.
  5. Schreurs RH, Sonneveld E, Jansen JH, Seinen W, van der Burg B. 2005. Interaction of polycyclic musks and UV filters with the estrogen receptor (ER), androgen receptor (AR), and progesterone receptor (PR) in reporter gene bioassays. Toxicol Sci. 83(2): 264-72.
  6. Bitsch N, Dudas C, Körner W, Failing K, Biselli S, Rimkus G, Brunn H. 2002. Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay using human mcf-7 cells. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 43(3): 257-64.
  7. Schreurs, R. H. M. M., Legler, J., Artola-Garicano, E., Sinnige, T. L., Lanser, P. H., Seinen, W., & Burg, B. V. D. (2004). In Vitro and in Vivo Antiestrogenic Effects of Polycyclic Musks in Zebrafish. Environmental Science &Amp; Technology Environ. Sci. Technol.38(4), 997–1002.
  8. Eisenhardt, S., Runnebaum, B., Bauer, K., & Gerhard, I. (2001). Nitromusk Compounds in Women with Gynecological and Endocrine Dysfunction. Environmental Research87(3), 123–130.
  9. Bridges, B. (2002). Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns. Flavour and fragrance journal17(5), 361-371.
  10. Parlett, L. E., Calafat, A. M., & Swan, S. H. (2013). Women’s exposure to phthalates in relation to use of personal care products. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology23(2), 197-206.
  11. Jurewicz, J., & Hanke, W. (2011). Exposure to phthalates: reproductive outcome and children health. A review of epidemiological studies. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health24(2), 115-141.
  12. Chen, X., Xu, S., Tan, T., Lee, S. T., Cheng, S. H., Lee, F. W. F., … & Ho, K. C. (2014). Toxicity and estrogenic endocrine disrupting activity of phthalates and their mixtures. International journal of environmental research and public health,11(3), 3156-3168.
  13. Ventrice, P., Ventrice, D., Russo, E., & De Sarro, G. (2013). Phthalates: European regulation, chemistry, pharmacokinetic and related toxicity.Environmental toxicology and pharmacology36(1), 88-96.
  14. Steinemann, A. C., MacGregor, I. C., Gordon, S. M., Gallagher, L. G., Davis, A. L., Ribeiro, D. S., & Wallace, L. A. (2011). Fragranced consumer products: chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review31(3), 328-333.
  15. Anderson, R. C., & Anderson, J. H. (1998). Acute toxic effects of fragrance products. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal53(2), 138-146.
  16. Bagasra, O., Golkar, Z., Garcia, M., Rice, L. N., & Pace, D. G. (2013). Role of perfumes in pathogenesis of Autism. Medical hypotheses80(6), 795-803.
  17. CDC. Acetaldehyde. NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, 2015. Available online:
  18. California Proposition 65. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 2015. Available online:
  19. IARC. Re-evaluation of some organic chemicals, hydrazine and hydrogen peroxide. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, vol. 71, pp 99-106, 1999. Available online:
  20. National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Thirteenth Edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014. Available online:
  21. OEHHA. Proposition 65., 2015. Available online
  22. Rhodes MC., et al. Carcinogenesis studies of benzophenone in rats and mice. Food Chem Toxicol, vol. 45, no. 5, pp 843-851, 2007.
  23. Endocrine Disruption. TedX List of Potential Endocrine Disruptors. Available online:
  24. California Proposition 65. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 2015. Available online:

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